Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Adapting a Novel for a Screenplay
How many times have you heard someone complain: "The movie isn’t like the book!" I’m pretty sure I have complained about that myself. Never again. Now my sympathies are entirely with the screenwriter!
It’s hard to turn a book into a movie. Heck, it was hard to turn the real life saga of the Fox sisters into a novel in the first place. In order to reduce the novel to a 120 minute movie, I’ve had to further compress timelines, drop and/or merge characters, and re-arrange events. In addition, I’ve been writing drafts of the screenplay while completing revisions on the We Hear the Dead manuscript, which involves keeping various versions of the story separate in my mind. I don’t know how many times I’ve grabbed my head and cried, “Wait! What am I supposed to do with this scene? Somebody wants it cut – Was it the producer or the editor?!”
Learning to write a screenplay was a new experience in itself. The entire story has to be told through dialogue and a sparse description of the action. There’s no way to convey the characters’ thoughts except with a voice-over narrative, which feels like cheating. Showing the passage of time becomes tricky. Do you like the old flipping calendar cliché? How about the seasons changing in fast motion before your eyes? Me neither, so I’ve tried to find a way to avoid them. A novel can encompass several subplots and layered themes, but in writing the screenplay I needed to narrow my focus a bit. Is this primarily a story of three sisters and the beginning of a social movement, or is it a romance between two lovers from different social stations?
Plus, I just wasn’t sure how to begin. Creating the first scene in the movie became an almost impassable obstacle. I finally just started with the second scene and went back to write the first scene later. And then I re-wrote it. And re-wrote it again.
My first attempt was not very noteworthy. My dialogue was okay, but I’d cut the stage action too short, figuring that a director would make all those decisions. On reflection (and advice from my collaborator), I realized I’d created a script that was too dull to read. Yes, the descriptions had to be brief, but they also had to be engaging to a person reading the screenplay. The script will be read before it is ever acted, and if I cannot convey my ideas to a person reading the script … the movie will never be made. When I realized that writing a screenplay is still a matter of writing well, everything fell into place.
Tonight I spent two hours on the phone talking to the producer about the latest version, which I call Draft 5.2. I now have notes for a new beginning (!) and a laundry list of other revisions—which I embrace happily (see the post below).